Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Artist: CHEAP TRICK
Album: CHEAP TRICK and IN COLOR
[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]
As I mentioned in the Gonna Raise Hell post about my first five concerts, Cheap Trick was the first band I ever saw live, in May 1980. These Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame inductees are still delivering their unique brand of post-Beatles power-pop to adoring audiences more than 37 years later, incredibly sounding as vital as they ever did (in spite of their somewhat acrimonious split with original drummer Bun E. Carlos, who was replaced by guitarist/songwriter Rick Nielsen’s son Daxx). Like most music fans of my generation, I was introduced to Rockford, Illinois’ finest via their 1979 multi-platinum live album, Cheap Trick At Budokan. Two years earlier they released their stunning self-titled debut album, as well as its equally strong follow-up, in the same calendar year. It’s hard enough to record two classics in succession, but to do so at the beginning of their career is proof that they were (and are) a special band. I already wrote about Cheap Trick in Part 2 of my Great Out Of The Gate series, which I’ve copied here, and that’s followed by some thoughts on their sophomore album.
Like most people in my age group, I was introduced to the music of Cheap Trick via their 1978 At Budokan live album. Two years later in May 1980, just shy of my 14th birthday, they were the first band I saw in concert, on the Dream Police tour at Madison Square Garden. By then I owned all four of their studio albums, but for some reason it took several more years before I fully appreciated their self-titled debut. It’s a little darker and rougher around the edges than the records that followed, but all the elements that would soon make the world fall in love with them are already evident: Robin Zander’s powerful & passionate vocals, Rick Nielsen’s quirky lead guitar, sneering backing vocals and uniquely twisted songs and the inventive & propulsive rhythm section of bassist Tom Petersson and drummer Bun E. Carlos. They were already delivering catchy melodies but most of the songs have a harder edge than anything on the next few records. “Elo Kiddies” has a bouncy glam-rock stomp and “Oh, Candy” is classic power-pop; these two are what most people would expect from Cheap Trick. Otherwise, “Hot Love” and “He’s A Whore” are fueled by punk energy, and both “Mandocello” & “Taxman, Mr. Thief” are intense, slow-burning rockers. This album was also my introduction to the underrated talent of Terry Reid, whose “Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace” they cover here. Cheap Trick might seem like a dark horse in their early catalog, possibly due to the fact that none of its songs were included on At Budokan (and only two were performed at the concert), but it’s every bit as strong as their most commercially successful albums.
Song-for-song their sophomore release, In Color, is every bit as strong as its predecessor. There’s a reason more than half the tracks on the aforementioned Cheap Trick At Budokan originated on this album. If there’s any complaint about In Color it’s Tom Werman’s production, which buffs away all of the debut’s edges to a polished pop sheen, but this is a minor issue and it’s likely the record company encouraged this approach in search of a radio hit. The most famous song here is “I Want You To Want Me.” It’s the only one that was significantly improved with a punchier live arrangement but I still enjoy the lighter studio version. Chugging album opener “Hello There,” with its “are you ready to rock?” refrain, became the ideal way to kick off their shows. “Come On, Come On” packs a tight, punchy melody in the verses and call-and-response vocals between Zander & Nielsen in the choruses. “Big Eyes” is carried along by a tom tom-heavy drum pattern & Nielsen’s crunchy guitar riff. The driving melodic rocker “Clock Strikes Ten,” which closed out the Budokan show, remains one of their finest achievements, with the repeated “Imagine what we’re doing tonight…” section being a particularly strong hook. The peppy, finger-snapping, power-chord-driven “Southern Girls” is an album (and career) highlight that was inexplicably omitted from the original Budokan. Bun E. Carlos’ pulsating drum groove and Zander pleading “Please don’t go, please don’t go away from me” make “You’re All Talk” another standout track. Two gems round out the highlights for me: “Oh Caroline” and album closer “So Good To See You.” Both tracks showcase their gifts for melodic hooks and rock & roll punch. Cheap Trick would follow up In Color with two or three more near-perfect studio albums (depending on your feelings about 1980’s George Martin-produced All Shook Up, which I love), so their winning streak wasn’t limited to the first two, but I continue to be awed by the way they introduced themselves to the world in 1977. These records still sound vital four decades on thanks to “the magnetism of Robin Zander” and “the charisma of Rick Nielsen” (courtesy of Mike Damone from Fast Times At Ridgemont High), not to mention that world-class rhythm section of Tom Petersson & Bun E. Carlos.